Philip Thomas

Why the Omicron wave won’t overwhelm the NHS

Barely six weeks after it was first discovered in Britain, the Omicron variant has changed everything. Cases have soared far beyond records made in the first wave. Hospital admissions are surging and pupils are once again wearing masks in school. Modellers have produced terrifying figures — up to 25,000 hospitalisations a day, more than five times the last peak. It looks like a Covid groundhog day, a doom loop we seem unable to escape.

Last summer, just before the end of lockdown, I wrote in this magazine about a ‘third wave’ of infections which could be just as big as the first. But my model also pointed to something else: that we could ride out this wave without the health service being overwhelmed and without the need for further restrictions.

I have run the figures once again, and the findings are significant. The Omicron variant is more contagious than any variant we have seen; an estimated two million were infected at the last count. This may rise to three million. My model shows that this could peak any day now, with the vast majority of infections in the same category as your average winter bug: that is to say, mild with no clinical implications. The hospitalisation rate will be about a third of what it was under the Delta variant. The NHS will be able to cope.

There is a saying in my line of work: all models are wrong, but some can be useful. Models can certainly be judged by past results. In July, a few days after I wrote about the third wave, Sage scenario papers were published saying that we would see ‘at least’ 1,000 daily admissions — the numbers went to 7,000. My model forecast a peak of 908 daily hospitalisations on 20 August. The actual peak was 900, on 8 September.

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